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Southern right whale banner video background © Fredrik Christiansen / Murdoch University

© Fredrik Christiansen / Murdoch University

Southern right whale

The thrill of seeing southern right whales steaming through the ocean during their seasonal migration never fails to impress. They are a captivating sight off the Australian coast from about mid-May to mid-November, sometimes with calves in tow.

Southern right whales are medium to large baleen whales, distinguished by the white/grey growths on their head, known as callosities. The shape and arrangement of callosities – above the eyes and top lip, and along the lower jaw – is different for every whale and commonly used as a means of identification.

Like all baleen whales, right whales have two blowholes to make breathing at the ocean surface easier. Their jaws are highly curved to allow some 250 baleen plates to hang down from either side of the top jaw like a giant curtain. The plates are up to two metres long and trap some two tonnes of krill and other small crustaceans a day. Made of keratin, the baleen plates continue to grow and fray throughout the whale's busy life.

Why it matters 

Whalers named them as the ‘right’ whale to kill on a hunt due to their plentiful oil and baleen content. Populations in all three ocean systems, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica), appear to have been healthy for several million years before human exploitation drove them all to the brink of extinction.

Nineteenth century whaling drastically reduced southern right whale numbers in Australian waters. An estimated 55,000 - 70,000 southern right whales lived in the Southern Hemisphere in the late 1700s. By the 1920s there may have been fewer than 300 individuals left.

Numbers have recovered slightly, thanks to protection, but the Australian population of southern right whales still stands at only 3,500 individuals. Some populations remain at greater risk than others and we still know very little about their migratory and feeding habitat or their calving areas.

Eubalaena australis

Species Bio

Common Name

Southern right whale

Scientific Name

Eubalaena australis

Stats

Population: around 10,000
Length: 14-18 metres
Weight: 80 tonnes
Distribution: Southern hemisphere, seasonally occurring in coastal water of all Australian states with the exception of the Northern Territory.

Status

Listed as Endangered (under EPBC Act) and as Least concern (under IUCN Red List).

 

Did you know?

The southern right whale has one of the largest heads of all whale species, measuring up to one-third its body length.


Threats

The challenges they face

Entanglement
Entanglement in commercial fishing equipment and marine debris can injure or kill whales. It can also reduce a whale's fitness by restricting its mobility, and impairing its breathing, swimming or feeding. Nets and lines cut through a whale's skin and blubber, exposing the animal to infection, amputation or death.

Vessel disturbance
The southern right whale appears to be the primary whale species involved in vessel collisions, which can lead to death or serious injury. A study of cetaceans in the Southern Hemisphere found that southern right whales accounted for half of allwhale deaths resulting from vessel collisions.

Global warming
Warming oceans, and changes to ocean processes may alter the distribution and supply of food (mostly krill and copepods) available to the southern right whale. Research suggests that warming waters may also hamper whale reproduction.

Underwater noise
Loud noises or long exposure to underwater noise can not only disrupt whale communication and cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, they can also deter whales from important habitats. In Australian waters this harmful noise can include seismic surveys, industrial activities (such as drilling, pile driving, blasting and dredging), defence activities, vessel noise and aircraft operating at low altitude.

What you can do to help

Support WWF’s whale research. We’re working with researchers to learn more about the critical habitats of whales migrating yearly from the Southern Ocean to Australia and back, in order to protect their migratory pathways from human impacts.

Responsible whale-watching. Whale-watching is one of the fastest growing nature-based tourism activities in the world. Choose a responsible whale-watching company that abides by local and national laws.

Recommended reading

Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

Oceans

Studying southern right whales

WWF and Murdoch University are unlocking the secrets of southern right whales in Australian waters using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones).

Read more